Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ambrose Heath's Good Drinks with Burnt Coffee

I noticed the recipe for Burnt Coffee in 'Good Drinks' when I was looking for one for Lambswool the other day and thought it might be the perfect way to celebrate finishing work for Christmas. You have to set it alight which seemed a suitably cathartic action to match my end of the day mood. It was.

Burnt Coffee:
"Make some good strong coffee (obviously not instant, filter or cafetière would be most authentic for the 1939 date of the book), sweeten it rather more than usual (soft brown sugar for preference, and I'm assuming it's neccesary to help float the brandy), and pour into small cups. Pour a little brandy into each over a spoon, set light to it, and when the brandy is partly consumed, blow out the flame and drink the coffee at once.

I don't know if it was because I didn't add enough brandy, or possibly enough sugar, but the flame I got was a quick blue flicker across the top of the Coffee that was gone almost in an instant. It was both pretty and dramatic, without looking like it was going to burn out of control. The combination of strong slightly bitter Coffee, the fudgey nutty flavour of the sugar, and the decent Armagnac I used was perfect. Think of a slightly refined Irish coffee without the cream, not quite as sweet, and with brandy perfume rather than whiskey fire. I like Irish coffee when it's made well (with a bit of love, and good ingredients), I like this far more.

It's less fuss (floating the cream takes a bit of practice and technique), more elegant - it would make a good end to a dinner where you want something a little bit sweet and decadent but not an actual pudding - and that dancing blue flame provides a bit of theatre. It would be an excellent drink to go and watch stars with, or to come back in from the cold to, and it's obviously excellent with a book.

The question of who in literature would drink this is intriguing - I'm thinking of Elizabeth Von Arnim in her German Garden when she sets off in a sleigh for a moonlight picnic (I think I have the right book, it might be the sequel) or maybe someone in Somerset Maugham. But then I read the Foreword to 'Good Drinks':
"This collection of divers drinks is offered for all those occasions when drinking is desirable: on a winter's evening by the fire, on the shady verge of the tennis-court, at a party, in a pub, with friends, or acquaintances and those even dearer, wherever they may happen to be together: to the advancement of the brewer and the wine merchant, and the confusion of all dull dogs."
Heath is a delight; I've enjoyed all of his books that I've managed to find, but 'Good Drinks' most of all. I've spent quite a bit of time with it this year researching vintage cocktails, and of all the old drinks books I have it's my favourite. It's partly Heath's humour that I love so much about it, but more importantly it's that he includes a lot of soft drinks, and that this more than any of the others is designed for home use. It's a treasure trove of ideas which every kitchen should have.

It seemed fitting to raise my Burnt Coffee to Heath, who is an entirely desirable drinking companion, and friend - even if it is only in book form.


  1. I shall toast your health tomorrow, in red wine, to thank you for your continuing excellent postings. Happy Christmas.

  2. Thank you, your kind thoughts are deeply appreciated.